Ask the internet this question and you’ll be presented with a long list of positive answers — of course oats are great for the skin and for problem skin conditions such as eczema, everyone declares. Use skin creams with oats in them! Add oat-containing products or oats to your bath water! You’ll notice the difference, surely.
But is this true for everyone, in all cases?
One ‘negative’ piece of research was published in the journal Allergy ten years ago — Oat sensitisation in children with atopic dermatitis — which reported that skincare products for eczema could be responsible for skin allergies, and which set out to examine the prevalence of oat sensitisation in children.
300 children with eczema were patch tested and skin prick-tested to oats, with around 1 in 6 and 1 in 5 testing positive, respectively. Children under two were more likely to test positive. A third of oat-based moisturiser users tested positive, but none of the non-users did.
Researchers reported that these figures were higher than expected, and that topical oat-containing products should be avoided in infancy.
But a decade on, does that still apply? Has anything changed?
More research — and a hypothesis
We know from other collected research that even very young babies can tolerate oats well.
Perhaps particular caution should be exercised in the very young, however, when it comes to broken skin … and it is this aspect of which we should be more conscious.
Rarely is a bad word spoken about oats, but we cannot pretend they are not allergenic — and allergens applied to broken skin are unlikely to ever be a good idea, and are the likely route to sensitisation in many cases of allergies, including food.
In recent years, the dual barrier hypothesis has been proposed and become accepted in immunological circles, and this holds that atopic infants can be sensitised to foods through damaged skin — before they have had a chance to consume them ordinarily in the diet and acquire tolerance to them. This would lead us to the suspicion that the very young atopic children sensitive to oats in the 2007 study above were likelier to become so because they had not yet been given oats in the diet.
The lesson would appear to be clear: tolerate an allergen in the diet, and then it’s safer to be exposed to it through the skin.
This is finely ground oats, which ‘releases’ and exposes more of oats’ active ingredients to the skin, and also disperses them better in, for instance, a bath.
Partly due to its long history of therapeutic use in skincare, it has always generally been considered safe, and studies have shown it to be helpful for eczema, psoriasis, rashes caused by drugs and other skin issues.
Most of the benefits appear thanks to compounds called avenanthramides, which inhibit the release of inflammatory compounds in the body, including histamine. But oats are also high in beta-glucans and starch which hold water and therefore hydrate the skin. They contain natural saponins (soap compounds) which gently cleanse. They contain phenolic compounds, which offer some protection against UV.
We know that all these properties mean oats can and do improve dry, rough and itchy skin, in particular — providing, of course, you don’t react to them!
So, with the suitable precautions in mind, oats are generally to be considered Good Things.
You can make your own colloidal oats by finely grinding down any 100% oats in a blender into a fine powder which dissolves fully in water, producing a ‘milk’. Around a cup of powder for a standard adult bath, or a third for a baby or child, is about right, and you should soak for about a quarter of an hour. Pat (don’t rub) your skin afterwards, and apply moisturiser.
You should experience relief from itchy or irritated skin, but stop and seek advice from your dermatologist if symptoms are aggravated. And if you suspect you or your child have an oat sensitivity, do seek advice from your doctor and a possible referral for patch testing.
If you have a wheat allergy, incidentally, you might want to consider using gluten-free oats for your baths, which will be free of wheat contamination, but those with coeliac disease need not, as gluten is highly unlikely to penetrate the skin. (You can read more about gluten — and oats and wheat, generally — in cosmetic products in my article for Skins Matter here.)
For labelling purposes, oats are known by their Latin name – avena sativa – which you should see on the label of any products containing them.
The best-known oat-based brand is perhaps Aveeno, all of whose many face and body products for the family contain colloidal oatmeal or other oat extracts. Their UK site offers free samples on request. Click here. In the US, click here.
Another brand which uses colloidal oatmeal is UK-based Cuderm, which is free from alcohol, fragrance, colour, animal derivatives, SLS and parabens. They have a smaller collection of products — click here.
And another UK brand is Aproderm, which uses 1% colloidal oat in its cream. It’s free from parabens, fragrance, and colour. Samples are available from here.
Thanks to Dr Lisa Waddell whose tweets on the subject inspired this post.